Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia says he has returned all “tangible” gifts, plus cash and loans (with interest), that a favor-seeking businessman lavished on him, his wife and his family. As a damage-control measure, that’s fine; the governor could do no less if he still cares to salvage a political career badly damaged by the revelations. As a gesture to Virginians, it’s only a first step, and an insufficient one.
McDonnell, a Republican, has admitted embarrassing the state. By accepting and soliciting gifts — a $6,500 Rolex, a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman, $15,000 toward the catering contract at his daughter’s wedding, to name a few — the governor and his wife, Maureen, have turned the commonwealth, and more to the point, themselves, into a national punch line.
The McDonnell scandal, infused with greed, privilege and a sense of entitlement, has exposed the sanctimonious myth at the heart of the “Virginia Way,” the code of upright and discreet conduct that supposedly guides those who hold elected office in Richmond. It has proved that, in the absence of meaningful ethical standards and laws, some politicians will behave as some politicians always have: graspingly.
McDonnell has not addressed any of that. He has said he would propose measures to tighten the state’s Swiss-cheese ethics laws but has not yet done so. He has refused to summon lawmakers to Richmond for a special session on ethics reform. And aside from apologizing for embarrassing Virginians, he has not spoken frankly about any of the particulars, what he and his wife did wrong and why they did it.
He delivered the apology itself only after enlisting a veteran Washington political image-maker, suggesting that the governor regards the whole affair mainly as a public relations problem rather than what it is: a symptom of shabby and unprincipled governance.
By insisting time and again that he broke no laws and that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams received no special favors in return for his charitable indulgence of the first family, McDonnell has offered not a blueprint for the restoration of ethical government but a preview of what may become his legal defense. That’s not good enough.
McDonnell has badly stained his otherwise consequential governorship. By rights, he should be remembered as the governor who safeguarded the future of the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure and reformed the scandalous system by which most felons remained permanently disenfranchised even after their sentences were served.
Instead, he will be remembered for a self-inflicted wound incurred by his own bad judgment and for dragging his feet in the aftermath of a corrosive drip of humiliating revelations.